It is bizarre that 22 years after the deadliest stadium disaster in the history of British football the question of what happened still needs to be the subject of parliamentary debate. And it is outright wrong that all official documents on the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died and 700 more were injured, have not been made public.
The explanation lies in the way that the British Establishment dealt with the disaster – and, more specifically, in the role of the police in the build-up and the aftermath. A catalogue of ineptitude, mismanagement and mendacity characterised the incident. It began with inadequate alterations of the design of the Sheffield Wednesday ground where many Liverpool fans reported they had been crushed the previous year. Then, as an inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor later showed, there was the police's failure to control the crowd entering the ground. Forty ambulances arrived at the stadium but police prevented all but one from entering, and forcibly turned back fans trying to break the police cordon to carry the injured to the ambulances.
But what was worse was the way the authorities closed ranks to shift the blame. Within minutes, a senior policeman told the first lie: claiming that fans had forced a gate which had actually been opened by the police themselves. In the weeks that followed senior policemen began asking ordinary officers to doctor their notes to delete embarrassing evidence of official shortcomings, the lack of effective radio communications and, most starkly, a section revealing that the fans "were organised and we were not".
Such reactions are hard to conceive now. But in 1989 Britain was seized with moral panic about football hooliganism. Pitch invasions and the throwing of missiles made clubs erect high steel fences between terraces and pitch – and it was against such a barrier that fans at Hillsborough were crushed. Violence on the streets before and after matches was not uncommon and led police to regard supporters with suspicion or even hostility. Only four years earlier, Liverpool fans had been involved at an incident at Heysel in Belgium in which 39 Italian fans had died. In the days before the middle classes began to attend matches in any numbers, the police had a distinct "us and them" attitude.
The families of those who died feel, understandably, that they have been treated as second-class citizens. Police ineptitude and lies were followed by a ruling at the inquest that all 96 victims had all sustained their fatal injuries by 3.15pm. The coroner thereby refused to hear evidence of what happened after that time – even though many bereaved families believed their loved ones could have been saved had the response of the police and other emergency services been better after that time.
To cover-up was added calumny when The Sun newspaper printed a front page report which claimed that fans were drunk, picked the pockets of victims and urinated on police trying to help the injured. Lord Taylor later dismissed the story, but the families were incensed that it had been written on the basis of briefings from anonymous police officers and an unnamed MP. Among the official papers the families most want sight of are those detailing the briefings given by the police to Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister.
All such documents must now be published. It is right that it be done so in conjunction with the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel now sorting through 45,000 police, council and government reports from the time. It is right, too, that the relatives of the victims should see the documents before they are generally published. But published they all should be unedited, unredacted, and uncensored. Only then can the tragedy finally be laid to rest.Reuse content